In the Salish Sea, Whale Watchers Frequently Getting Too Close

A nonprofit is tracking potential violations of whale watching regulations by commercial and private watchers. 

Published February 18, 2016

Anyone who has been whale watching from a small boat or kayak appreciates the excitement that comes from getting up close and personal. To hear the whales breathing, feel the spray against your skin, and experience their thunderous breaches can feel almost spiritual.

On the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, tourists are taken out into breeding lagoons to float alongside and touch gray whales. Well-heeled snorkelers can swim with killer whales in the fjords of northern Norway and with humpbacks in Tonga in the South Pacific.

In the US Pacific Northwest, getting too close to whales is against the law—regulations designed to spare whales from the disturbances they may experience elsewhere. Yet all too often, whale watchers don’t follow the rules.

The Whale Museum created Soundwatch in 1993 to educate boaters and track potential violations of US federal and state regulations and best-practice guidelines by commercial and private whale watchers in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, where the big draw is an endangered population of 85 southern resident killer whales. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals sail out to predictably see the whales in Haro Strait, part of the Salish Sea shared with British Columbia.

Last year, Soundwatch counted 1,635 infractions during 393 hours of observation during peak whale watching season, from May to September. Canadian commercial operators were responsible for 19 percent of the incidents, and US commercial operators for 11 percent. The biggest culprits, although there are also more of them: private recreational boaters, accounting for 60 percent of the breaches. The remainder involved kayakers, aircraft, and government, research, and commercial fishing vessels.

The most common incidents involved vessels coming within 180 meters of whales, getting in the path of whales, traveling inshore of the animals, or motoring faster than 13 kilometers per hour (seven knots) within 0.4 kilometers of whales.

Soundwatch coordinator Elizabeth Seely says her staff uses laser range finders, electronic radar, chart plotters, and high-powered binoculars to obtain their findings. “We work hard every year to record accurate data,” she says.

A testament to the quality of the organization’s findings, the results are being used as part of a review of federal regulations by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Joe Gaydos, the chief scientist with the SeaDoc Society in the San Juan Islands, says bad whale watching behavior is concerning as there are a number of ways infringing boats can hurt whales. Engine noise makes it more difficult for whales to communicate and hunt; propellers are a collision risk; and whales may inhale vessel exhaust fumes when they come up to breathe. Whales also alter their swimming to avoid boats, a particular problem for nursing females. “We don’t want to give moms that are lactating extra reason to expend energy,” says Gaydos.

The Pacific Whale Watching Association, an industry group that represents US and Canadian commercial whale tour operators in the Salish Sea, estimates that 400,000 passengers embarked on 14,000 tours last year, generating well over US $30-million in gross revenues.

Michael Harris, the association’s executive director, dismisses the Soundwatch findings as unreliable, urging the organization to leave killer whale enforcement issues to government agencies. He argues that it is in the industry’s best interest to protect the whales, and highlights Soundwatch’s observation that private boaters account for the bulk of the incidents.

He also asserts that no science to date has shown that the industry harms whales: “There is nothing solid … that shows unequivocally that operating within guidelines has negative effects on killer whales.”

For its part, the Washington State department of fish and wildlife issued citations to 15 recreational boaters and one Canadian commercial operation last summer, with fines ranging from US $150 to $1,025, and gave out another 96 warnings. US federal enforcement staff issued two infractions, three written warnings, and eight verbal warnings.

One of the big issues, says Soundwatch’s Seely, is that many private boaters don’t seem to be aware of the guidelines and laws, which could potentially explain their high infraction rate.

International politics only add to the confusion. Canada recommends giving the whales 100 meters of space, but has no strict enforceable limits. The Canadian Fisheries Act does make it illegal to disturb or harass a marine mammal, but that can be difficult to prove. The former federal Conservative government also axed funding for Soundwatch’s counterpart in the Strait of Georgia, Straitwatch. “It’s the same water, the same whales,” Gaydos concludes. “We should do a better job of a unified approach.”

Correction: Slight modifications for clarity were made to this article after publication.